Analysis: “After the ball”, by Lev Tolstoi (1903).
This short essay was written in the context of MUEC and with the assistance of Professor José Manuel Mora-Fandos.
“After the ball” is a short story in which Ivan Vasilevich tells the story of his failed love story with Varenka B., which he claims proves that circumstances are more important than upbringing. The story is divided in two halves, one that explains what happens in the ball (preceded by a short section set in the present that frames the story) and another that explains what happens after the ball. which is shorter but more important.
At the beginning of the story, we are told that Ivan didn’t marry Varenka in the end, which makes us expect that this will be the story of how she breaks his heart. We also expect that it will explain precisely why circumstances are more important than upbringing.
The story is very rich in adjectives and adverbs, which serve the purpose of making us feel precisely what Ivan feels. He makes picturesque descriptions of the hosts, the ball and the other guests. He also describes the kind of music the orchestra plays, the clothes Varenka wears and his mood as happy, satisfied, grateful, tender, only capable of good. Here we must pay attention at the symbolism posed by gloves: the ones Varenka wears, the ones Ivan wears and the ones the colonel wears. When Varenka dances with her father, he’s described in very endearing terms: tall and handsome, with blush cheeks and combed-forward sideburns. He dances clumsily and with energy, and that only makes Ivan admire him more. Ivan even supposes that the reason the colonel is wearing such old boots is so he can pay for his daughter to have an active social life, but we have no further proof of that.
Varenka gives Ivan a feather from her fan as a present, which he keeps inside his glove: why there instead of a pocket or satchel? Later on, Ivan keeps one of Varenka’s gloves along with the feather, which at that time was a symbol of commitment. Why does Ivan not try to get engaged with Varenka, or at least try to get closer to her father while in the ball? Bearing in mind what happens later, that might be another link in the chain of coincidences that change Ivan’s life.
There are two mild instances of foreshadowing almost at the exact middle of the story: Varenka’s father has to leave because he must get up early the following morning and Ivan mentions the only thing he fears is something that spoils his happiness.
Ivan is so excited he can’t sleep, so he goes for a walk in the early morning. The descriptions in this segment are so plastic and colourful there is no doubt Tolstoi is a master of style. Every adjective choice might seem obvious, but at the same time it’s spot-on. Soon there is a change in tone: there is music in the street, and it is morbid and ominous, as opposed to the happy, festive music that was played at the ball. Ivan witnesses the colonel leading the running of a gauntlet to a Tartar that deserted. We could expect that Ivan’s description of the cruel event is as colourful as his depiction of the ball, but it is objective and succinct. The reason this works is because when one is in love one is eloquent and enthusiastic, but when one is horrified they don’t feel like speaking that much. If he were as talkative as before, it wouldn’t feel as appropriate.
The colonel is described in the same terms as before, but everything about him has changed. He’s wearing the same kind of kid gloves as Varenka in the ball. Ivan says he feels ashamed as if he had done something execrable. He’s telling his story in the present and by the way he tells it we know that he hasn’t, but the colonel did something reprehensible instead. But back then, Ivan can’t cope with the fact that he has seen a person he admired doing something so horrible, so he feels guilt instead. Ivan describes feeling nauseous and physically ill as a consequence. The effect is even stronger because the was blissful a few pages before.
Ivan tries to find a justification for what he has seen. Interestingly, he does not appeal to morality (”he did what was his duty”) or politics (”he did it to protect us from our enemies”) but to reason: “he must know something that I do not”. But Ivan is an older, wiser man now, and he doesn’t right away tell us that he despises the colonel’s cruelty, but he simply says that the witnessing of these events convinced him that he couldn’t become a soldier or a politician. The other people at the gathering mock him for being useless as a citizen, revealing they haven’t understood Ivan’s concerns.
Tolstoi hides the main motif of the story near the end of the story and makes it look like it’s unimportant. Ivan has revealed that circumstances are more important than upbringing because it was just a coincidence that caused him not to marry Varenka and not to become a soldier, while all of his upbringing had worked towards those goals. But more importantly, Tolstoi has spoken about how the real monsters might be your friends, family and neighbours. Monsters are not always cruel, but they’re all the more scary because they are capable of love and affection. Ivan renounced a woman he loved and a career he coveted out of fear to become such a monster. And from the way he speaks in the present, he’s proud of the decision he made.
Last but not least, intertextuality enriches the text: Tolstoi decides to set the story on the last day of Carnival, therefore the following morning is the first morning of Lent. The flogging of the tartar is reminiscent of the Passion, where he addresses the onlookers as brothers, as well as other Biblical references.